Coal and tobacco industries kill more Americans each year than they employ

A new study outlines why the tobacco and coal industries warrant "corporate death sentences."

  • A study developed a formula to identify industries that do more bad than good.
  • The U.S. coal and tobacco qualify as having a net negative value to society.
  • Should we tolerate any industry that makes a profit?

Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University has raised an interesting question: If "The unwritten rule with industry is you get to make money if you're a benefit to society," what about an industry that creates more damage than good? Should such an industry be allowed to continue operation, or should it be shut down?"

In a study just published in Social Sciences on February 18, researchers led by Pearce found: "In the singular search for profits, some corporations inadvertently kill humans. If this routinely occurs throughout an industry, it may no longer serve a net positive social purpose for society and should be eliminated."

This said, his team's research has resulted in a non-political, objective method for determining whether an industry warrants a "corporate death sentence."

The factors that go into the equation

Image source: Wittawat Meunthap / Shutterstock

Pearce cites a very simple way to assess whether or not an industry does more bad than good: Does it kill more people than it employs? Pearce's calculus is based on what he suggests are three unassailable premises, as stated in his paper:

  1. Everyone has the right to life. This is explicitly called for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly. In addition, it is intuitively obvious that the right to life is the primary right as it is necessary to be alive to enjoy any other right (i.e., the right to work).
  2. Everyone has the right to work. This is explicitly called for in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Corporations are large companies or groups of companies authorized to act as a single legal entity (person) to efficiently generate profit for the benefit of humans, and one of their primary additional benefits is job creation. Thus, corporations help facilitate the right to work.
  3. Human law should give corporations the right to exist if they are beneficial to humanity. Corporations are human constructs created by law to benefit humanity. Thus, in the simplest possible case, corporations can be viewed as good as they create profit and jobs, unless their operation interferes with the right to life of humans they are meant to benefit.

"If we know that life trumps employment because you have to be alive to work," Pearce tells Michigan Tech News, "then for a company or industry to exist it must employ more people than it kills in a year. What this paper has done is set the minimum bar for industry existence."

Pearce acknowledges that, as the paper says, "There are benefits corporations can provide that go beyond employment (e.g., products that provide a benefit, gifts to charity, etc) and also that there are corporate harms that are less severe than death (e.g., adverse ecosystem impacts that harm nature and nonhuman species, which only indirectly effects humans)." Still, those pluses and minuses are difficult to quantify due to inadequate data and the fact that longer data periods are required for smoothing out fluctuations in such numbers.

"Surprisingly," says Pearce, his analysis "showed that there are at least two industries in America right now that are killing more people annually than they employ." That would be the coal and tobacco industries.

Numbers tell the story

Image source: Parilov via Shutterstock

Pearce became interested in developing such a metric while working on a previous study that involved calculating the number of American lives that could be saved in switching U.S. production of electricity from coal to solar.

Of the coal- and tobacco-industry case studies his new research scrutinized, Pearce says, "After running the numbers, the results are shocking. Every coal mining job in the U.S. demands literally one American life every year. For tobacco jobs, it is four times worse. The study concludes both industries warrant corporate death penalties."

The coal industry:

  • The industry employs 51,795 people based on data from the United States Energy Information Administration.
  • The total number of annual U.S. premature deaths from coal-fired, electricity-based air pollution is 52,015, using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

The tobacco industry:

  • The industry employs 124,342 people based on data from the North American Industry Classification System.
  • The total number of annual U.S. deaths from direct and second-hand smoke is 522,000 using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

Life (for workers) after death (of an industry)

Image source: Praethip Docekalova via Shutterstock

Pearce and his co-authors suggest that while not painless, the dissolution of these industries might actually work out well for the people displaced. His team has written previously of the income and health benefits to be enjoyed by coal workers who are retrained to work in the solar energy industry. They've also written about how current tobacco farmers can earn more and reduce a number of risk factors by repurposing their fields as solar farms.

Corporate charter control

The paper suggests the revocation of companies' corporate charters as the most workable means of executing an industry. The charters allow these entities to do business. They could be revoked at the federal level, or in any of the 49 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that retain the right to nullify a charter.

Obviously, the larger issue is summoning public opinion and legislative support for such a mechanism.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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